It is one of the ironies of the globalised world we live in that the best-known Indian in the United States may well be a person whose existence most of us were only dimly aware of till a few months ago. And yet, by the time we first heard of him — probably on the Hindi news channels, where he has suddenly become a fixture — the Great Khali had already been crowned the heavyweight wrestling champion of the world. Admittedly, he held the title only for a brief period in 2007, but such is his predominance in the wrestling world that most Americans have at least some idea of who he is.
In the United States, professional wrestling is not regarded as a legitimate sport. The premier wrestling league calls itself World Wrestling Entertainment (it used to be called the World Wrestling Federation, but now the WWF has become the WWE), and describes its stock-in-trade as ‘sports entertainment’.
Despite the scorn that legitimate sports commentators pour on it, the WWE is one of the mainstays of satellite television in the United States. It draws ratings that rival those of the top TV shows and its programmes are taped and exported all over the world.
Integral to professional wrestling’s appeal is the one fact that used to occasion so many sneers: the matches are fixed. Whereas, once upon a time, promoters would deny that the outcomes were pre-arranged, the WWE (in its earlier avatar as the WWF) took the precedent-shattering decision to declare that it was in the entertainment business. Of course, the matches were fixed, it proudly declared. That’s how the federation was able to make sure that no bout was dull and that feuds, rivalries and friendships assumed soap-operatic dimensions. Any scripted activity needs characters. And that’s where The Great Khali fits in. The WWE invents characters and then chooses wrestlers to fit the roles. For instance, a former champion Diesel was first played by Kevin Nash, and then, when he defected to a rival federation, by Glen Jacobs (who later played Kane). Similarly, one of the organisation’s biggest draws, The Undertaker, is played by a reasonably well-known wrestler called Mark Callaway.
The Great Khali is a character like The Undertaker. His name is an Americanisation of Kali described by the WWE as the Hindu goddess of death! According to the federation, Khali has walked the jungles of India, fought with tigers and performed all the activities you might expect of a giant savage.
The man who plays the character, however, is very real. Dalip Singh Rana was born in 1972 in Dhirana, in Himachal Pradesh. Because of his size (he is 7-feet-3-inches and weighs 190 kg), he took to menial pursuits, first finding employment as a stone-breaker before ending up, almost inevitably, in the Punjab Police. It was while he served as a sub-inspector in Jalandhar that he got interested in bodybuilding. He was India’s ‘champion bodybuilder’ in 1997 and 1998. In 2000, he hit the big time when he travelled to the United States to take part in an international competition.
Because wrestling federations need unusually-built individuals to play their characters, their talent scouts scour the body builder circuit, looking for potential recruits. Khali was picked up by a Japanese federation and wrestled successfully in Japan calling himself Giant Singh, a name that while entirely unimaginative at least had the advantage of some tenuous connection to reality.
Big and brawn
In 2006, the WWE signed him up and dispensed with the Giant Singh name. Instead, the character of the Kali-worshipping, tiger-fighting Great Khali was invented. In the finest traditions of professional wrestling, Khali first made an uncredited appearance as a mystery man before turning up under his stage name. His claim to fame was his size. Other wrestlers were dwarfed by his height, and the WWE encouraged speculation that a giant of his size would be impossible to beat.
In wrestling, the storylines are always dictated by the size of the gate and the TV ratings. When the Khali character went down well with audiences, his role was increased and he was given his own gimmicks including a ‘Punjabi Prison Match’, a variation on that old wrestling stand-by, the Cage Match.
The WWE gave Khali an Indian manager (though he’s changed managers through his career) and emphasised his monster-like quality letting him speak very little and allowing the manager to do the talking for him. That it worked as a stunt was evident from the federation’s decision to allow Khali to hold the world title for a brief period in 2007 and, even now, he is regularly slated as a potential world champion — a prospect that has Indian news channels devoting hours of news programming to his chances.
Past experience shows that wrestling giants have a limited life span — both professionally and literally. America’s most famous giant, Andre The Giant, died young as did his British equivalent, Giant Haystacks. Khali’s WWE rival in the size stakes, Paul Wight, has had surgery to curtail the hormonal problems that led to Andre’s death. Fortunately, so far at least, Khali does not seem to suffer from gigantism or any potentially-fatal illness.
How long his career will last is another matter. He’s had only a couple of years at the top rung of the WWE and if past experience is anything to go by, he has three or four more years left before being relegated to the supporting events and the lesser federations.
For Dalip Singh Rana, the relegation may not matter too much. He has already succeeded beyond his wildest expectations, is rich, famous and developing a second career as a movie heavy (he is in the new Hollywood comedy Get Smart). Even if the WWE audience tires of the Indian goddess of death and the tiger fighting, Dalip Singh, should come out okay. And he may well be relieved to be rid of the Khali character.